From bombmaker to Bible teacher

Raja Salameh used to train young Arabs to make explosives and carry out attacks against Jews. Today he is director of the Good Samaritan Center, known for his generosity and caring heart.

Raja Salameh 521 (photo credit: ESTERA WIEJA)
Raja Salameh 521
(photo credit: ESTERA WIEJA)
Raja Salameh was born in the Old City of Jerusalem to a generation that has known its share of troubles.
Now 47, he is the sole survivor of his closest childhood friends. Of a group of six young Arab mates, three committed suicide and two died in the region’s many conflicts.
Salameh is currently director of the Good Samaritan Center, a Christian ministry he pioneered some 10 years ago to assist hundreds of needy Arabs in the Old City, especially the elderly.
With help from local churches and individual believers, the center provides aid and activities to older residents of the Christian Quarter. They are very appreciative of Salameh’s work and his caring heart – but few know that he was not always so generous and kind.
He was born into an Arab Catholic family, but as a teenager, he veered dangerously away from the faith and joined the youth wing of Fatah, the main PLO faction. Young and rambunctious, he eagerly left for Jordan to receive training in how to make bombs.
By 25, he was back in Jerusalem, training young Arab boys to make explosives and carry out attacks against Jews.
He still remembers every single one of his trainees from those days. Of a group of nine young men, two died in the second intifada and another two have been imprisoned. Three have fled abroad, while the remaining two stayed behind and now hold high positions in Fatah.
Salameh is sad that these last two former “students” will not even talk to him. He tried to share with them how his life had changed, to convince them that what they were doing was wrong; but it seems to be too late.
“When I met with them, I could see they had dark hearts,” said Salameh with disappointment. It pains him to think that he helped plant seeds of hatred in their hearts. So he still prays that God will show them mercy and take them off the path they are on.
“I want them to see the light that I see.”
After his stint as a PLO operative, Salameh got involved with drugs. He was still in his 20s, and convinced that the world was at his fingertips. It was a rapid and steep descent from there.
As an addict, he quickly became of no use to Fatah and tried to provide for himself by stealing. The local Catholic parish offered him a job, but that just allowed him to steal more, and with greater ease.
In retrospect, Salameh insists that Christians should never give money to drug addicts, no matter how genuine they sound.
“I must have given my life to Christ in prayer over 200 times,” he confesses.
“That was because I knew the gullible Christians would always give me money later.”
Yet there was one person who piqued his curiosity – a Ms.
Bleeker from Holland, whom he referred to as the “Dutch lady.” She was serving with a local church and was one of his recurring victims of crime.
“This lady, she was smiling at me all the time,” recalled Salameh.
Even though she knew he was stealing from her and had lied to her numerous times, she always greeted him with a smile and treated him with kindness.
Frustrated, Salameh decided to confront her. Confessing how he had cheated and stolen from her to buy drugs, he demanded an answer to one simple question: Why did she keep on smiling at him? Instead of a direct reply, she invited him to a prayer meeting the next morning.
At the meeting, Salameh realized his life needed to change, yet he felt powerless to do it. It was 1993, and the church decided to send him to the House of Victory, a Teen Challenge-style center for recovering drug addicts near Haifa. The move changed his life, though the early days in the program were difficult.
“I was the first Arab to stay at the House,” recounts Salameh. “At first it was really, really hard. I was afraid to sleep. I stole a knife from the kitchen and kept it under my pillow. I was surrounded by my enemies – the Jews!” It didn’t help that his first roommate at the House of Victory happened to be a radical right-wing Jew named Dani, a member of the racist Kach faction.
At first, the two hated each other with a passion.
Yet Salameh stayed with the program for nine months and, as he likes to say, it was in Haifa that God gave him “a new heart, a heart of flesh.”
Today, back in Jerusalem, he remains close to Dani, assuring him that “he’s not a friend, he’s a brother.”
He started out by helping take other drug addicts off the streets and sending them north to the House of Victory. He knew where to find them, and where they could get help.
One by one, he sent 45 addicts to Haifa within the first two years. Of these, only five succeeded in permanently dropping their drug habits.
Three became pastors, and two are now deacons in the Catholic Church.
Afterwards, Salameh launched Good Samaritan, which today focuses mainly on serving the Old City’s elderly Christian Arabs, many of whom live rent-free in small oneroom apartments owned by the Catholic Church. The Good Samaritan center provides food and medical help to those who need it the most, regardless of faith or church affiliation.
Salameh is also trying to reach out to the Arab children of the Old City.
Instead of showing them how to make bombs, this time he is teaching youngsters about the Bible.
His center is located in a former hostel in the heart of the Christian Quarter. Its three floors house an entertainment center, clinic, dining hall and administrative offices.
And then there’s the center’s roof – Salameh’s pride and joy. On the same level as the domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre just two buildings away, it provides a fabulous view overlooking the rooftops of the Old City and over toward the Mount of Olives in the distance.
Every Monday, representatives from various churches gather there to pray. Salameh refuses to put up any religious symbols or an altar on the roof.
“We are not representing any specific church denomination,” he stresses. “It is Jesus that brings us together.”
For Raja Salameh, every day is a chance for a miracle. He is living proof of that.